Signs of the Times

Lippitt House Museum adds sign language tour for guests with hearing impairments


This summer, the Lippitt House Museum added an American Sign Language (ASL) tour. Carrie Taylor, the museum’s director, says, “Since deafness was a part of Lippitt family life in the 19th century, we want to make sure members of Rhode Island’s deaf community today can visit and learn about this and other stories related to all the residents who lived there.”

The ASL tour is both a new amenity and true to the Lippitts’ roots. As many history buffs know, Lippitt House is a national historic landmark built for Rhode Island Governor Henry Lippitt in 1865 and owned and operated by Preserve Rhode Island. Jeanie Lippitt, the daughter of Henry Lippitt and Mary Ann Balch Lippitt, lost her hearing at the age of four, following a battle with scarlet fever. Her mother made sure that Jeanie was included in society and led a normal life – a goal that was hard to attain as a deaf/hard-of-hearing person during the Victorian Age. Mary Ann accomplished it by teaching her daughter to speak, thereby preventing the chance that Jeanie would be marginalized.

Jeanie so excelled at “oral training,” a now-controversial approach, that she was able to attend a regular school, as opposed to an asylum for the deaf. Later, she refined her pronunciation with the help of Alexander Graham Bell. In 1876, Jeanie successfully urged the members of General Assembly to establish the Rhode Island School for the Deaf.

A lot has changed since Jeanie’s day, and oral training has been mostly replaced with American Sign Language. Developed by Anne Prusky, a Brown University senior, and funded by a grant from the Paul V. Sherlock Center for Disabilities at Rhode Island College, the tour comprises 49 short YouTube videos featuring people fluent in ASL, who explore various themes and spaces. Prusky collaborated with Taylor on the script, along with Tim Riker, ASL lecturer at Brown University, on the editing process.

The museum’s intention is to offer as many options to visitors as possible. Already, it employs a Family Guide for those with young children, and incorporates hands-on activities for guests who like to interact with historical documents and examine objects. Visitors can opt for the museum’s docent-led guided tours or the self-guided option, accessing tours either on their mobile phones or via the museum’s tablets.

Taylor says that the tour was “well received” by the local members of the deaf and hearing-impaired community, who previewed it in May. 199 Hope Street